The entrepreneur and art patron takes us for a walk through Yangon, Myanmar to explore its fascinating history and its rich, thriving art scene
Yangon is a city that builds among, rather than against, its ruins. Stately heritage buildings loom over a classic Southeast Asian scene of smoky street food stalls and swarms of scooters. Early mornings are particularly lively, as women sashay while balancing bags or baskets filled with produce on their heads, and men—many dressed in the traditional sarong-like longyi—crouch over small plastic stools for morning coffee as well as banter. Monks roam around the city, barefoot and often with a briefcase and smartphone in tow.
It was only seven years ago that the veil was lifted on Myanmar, also known as Burma. The once closed-off nation’s military government began transferring power to civilian leaders in 2011, and subsequently opened the country to visitors the following year. Since then, it has been growing and developing at whiplash speed, but it’s doing so on its own terms.
The authenticity and uniqueness of Myanmar
There’s a strong and proud sense of identity in Myanmar that holds fast to authenticity. In Yangon, the country’s former capital once known as Rangoon, you won’t find a McDonald’s or 7-Eleven. Instead, you’ll uncover boutiques by designers harnessing tribal weaving techniques and restaurants showcasing traditional flavours from the country’s different regions. There’s a clear desire to do things in a way that’s uniquely Burmese—to modernise what’s already there rather than completely redefine itself.
“Yangon is very charming,” says Ivan Pun, a prominent figure in Yangon’s up-and-coming art scene and the founder of Pun + Projects, through which he owns a number of restaurants and spearheads creative ventures in Yangon and Hong Kong. He graciously offered to show us around the city, and we happily obliged. “Myanmar really embraces its own culture. A lot of countries, in their early stages of development, aspire to copy and be like somewhere else while ignoring their own culture. Luckily, the people here are very passionate about their heritage, and that’s really helped the city retain its authenticity.”
Ivan, who is Burmese-Chinese, spent much of his childhood visiting Yangon during his school holidays before moving there full-time in 2011, and then founding Pun + Projects in 2015. The lifestyle company operates popular Yangon restaurants like The Pansodan, Port Autonomy and Locale, and organises pop-up art events around the city.
“There are all these things I’m passionate about and when I came back to Yangon, I saw that there was an emerging scene but there weren’t many projects that were geared towards this new community. I felt that there was a powerful, youthful energy and that’s what incentivised me,” he says.
A cross-cultural past
The first stop on Ivan’s itinerary is a stroll through downtown Yangon—an orchestra of colour, colonial relics and cross-cultural references anchored by the glistening Sule Pagoda. You’ll find bustling mazes of vibrant Burmese shophouses side by side with colonial British architecture. Structures like The Secretariat and the Balthazar Building have an imposing presence, but while some have been or are being restored—Peninsula Hotels are currently developing the former headquarters of the Myanmar Railway Company, which will open as The Peninsula Yangon in 2021—many are left unoccupied and dilapidated.
Owned by government departments, these heritage giants remain asleep, with the hope that the city might one day be restored to its former glory.
“You can sense that Yangon was once a very cosmopolitan city—especially in the 1950s—and you can really see the cross-cultural element of its history by walking through downtown,” says Ivan.
Chinatown sits east of Merchant Road, anchored by the Chinese Taoist temple and home to the city’s Chinese community. A mere four-minute drive brings you to the Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque, built in 1860, which sits down the road from the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue. A little further afield is Bogalay Zay Street, the epicentre of Yangon’s creative movement, dotted with cool restaurants and cafes, boutiques and independent art galleries dedicated to celebrating local artists.
“In the absence of a central art school or academy, most Burmese artists are either self-taught or trained in an apprenticeship with other artists, which means there’s a very close-knit community,” says Ivan. “I think because they’re kind of one step removed from the contemporary art market, they’re more experimental and have the opportunity to do more individualistic, less commercial works.”
Myanmar's national treasure
Of course, no trip to Yangon would be complete without visiting its holiest site, Shwedagon Pagoda. Dating back more than 2,500 years and set over a sprawling 46 hectares, this national treasure is literally the jewel in Myanmar’s crown. The main stupa alone is said to be worth US$3 billion, plated with solid gold bars and topped with a 99-metre spire adorned with thousands of diamonds, precious stones and golden bells.
Bells and whistles aside, it is the solitude and spirituality of this sacred place that draw devotees, worshippers and observers every day, including monks and nuns from all over the world. On the day that we visited, we noticed a monk walking the grounds with his young son. Letting go of his hand, he then whispered something to his son and gestured him towards one of the many altars surrounding the central monument. The son, with a slight pout, walked to the altar and got down on his knees to bow three times. He rushed back to his father, who smiled and handed him a tyrannosaurus rex doll before they walked off into the golden hour.
“Bribery as a parent; I’m telling you, it’s universal,” our photographer Amanda, a mother of one, says to me. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a monk or a banker, or if you’re in California or Hong Kong or Yangon.”
It was a moment that summed up how it feels to explore this historically rich city that’s in the eye of its evolutionary storm: Yangon is fascinating and unlike any other place, yet charmingly familiar in ways you wouldn’t expect.